I was married for three years and had yet to make a Pesach seder. Each year we had been able to go where someone else did all the Passover prep and cooking. I was living in a fool’s paradise, but I didn’t know it.
But in year 4 we bought a house, and all the usual seder invitations just faded away. We had no willing relatives who would let us crash at their place, and there was no budget for a mini-vacation at a hotel.
The die was cast.
It was our turn to create Pesach in our own kitchen and possibly invite a few guests. You can imagine the stress of cooking for the sedarim for the first time. Trying to stay calm, I made lists and lists. Then I made a list of my lists, in case I should lose any of them.
I thought I was doing pretty well. We turned the kitchen from chometzdik to nice, clean Pesachdik about a week before the first seder. I was cooking and freezing stuff like a pro. I left only one task for the day of the seder: making my great aunt Zahava’s Passover egg noodles.
So I’m sitting there erev Pesach, all relaxed, making the noodles and smiling to myself. Why does everyone make such a big deal about the seder? This is a cinch!
And then it dawns on me, more like a sudden electrical surge than enlightenment: there’s more to the seder than just the meal – there’s, well, the seder! So I’m scampering around the kitchen, searching for a charoset recipe, wondering if I even have all the ingredients. Next, I’m pondering how much salt to put in the salt water. Then I boil up my 10,000th potato. Gotta dip the potato, right? Or is it celery? So I grab a bunch of celery and start chopping and then I think, was it both? Are both ok? I’d better have both on hand, just in case. Oh gosh, the zeroa – the lamb shank! What do you use for a zeroa and how do you roast the darn thing? And an egg – how do you roast an egg without it exploding all over the place?
Well, I wound up finding a charoset recipe and the necessary ingredients, plus some calm words of wisdom from a (highly amused) neighbor. And by the time I breathlessly sat down to the seder – more like sliding into home plate – I had everything in place, sort of.
That was several years ago. We’re staying home again this year, as we’ve done for the past few years, and we’ll be hosting both my mother and my mother-in-law. If I can handle the convergence of Passover and two mothers, I can handle anything. If you’re making your first seder, or your first in several years, I sympathize. I remember my first Pesach and I can give you solid help. I would have given anything for a list like this. (But you should check with your rabbi if you have any questions.)
Seder Checklist (in order of use)
Provide enough wine – many families prefer red – so each adult can have a minimum of four full glasses. Just do the math: 4 x number of guests x size of cups.
Here you have to ascertain (or establish) your family custom. Some people use boiled potatoes and others use celery or parsley to dip into the salt water, which symbolizes the tears shed in slavery. You don’t need much, because each person is supposed to have only a little bit, actually less than a zayit – an Israeli olive, which is fairly large as olives go, but it’s still just an olive. (When you’re Jewish, you get used to measuring in olives.)
Any kind of salt will do, and you don’t have to make the water taste like the ocean, just recognizably salty. Taste test to avoid nasty experiences.
You’ll need a lot of this, so stock up. The person leading the seder needs three whole matzot but some rabbinic opinions call for supplementing that for the korech (the sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs). Every person at the seder will eat the specified amount, so you need a few pounds on hand. Here’s a tip: Since the person (or people) with a seder plate and three matzot must start with unbroken matzot, it’s a good idea to go through the boxes in advance and put perfect ones where you can find them easily when you need them.
Use romaine lettuce, endives, fresh ground horseradish, or whatever your family custom mandates. Granted, lettuce and endives are not really bitter, but a custom is a custom, and I won’t argue. The horseradish, on the other hand, is a real trip. It’s hard to calculate how much you’ll need. You’ll need maror for the korech too. For a seder for 12, we use about two heads of romaine and half of a good-sized grated horseradish. But I’m the first to admit that it’s anybody’s guess, and you could get stuck with leftover horseradish.
Another dip – this time it’s a combination of diced apples, cinnamon, nuts, ginger, and wine (or at least that’s one popular Ashkenazic version). It’s supposed to look like the mortar used in building, another symbol of slavery. There are lots of recipes for charoset; you could probably try a new one every year for decades.
You don’t eat this. It’s the broiled meat placed on the seder plate to symbolize the korban Pesach, the paschal lamb, which was a sharp, in-your-face negation of Egyptian idolatry. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we do not do the paschal lamb, so this is just a reminder. Some people use a lamb shank bone, others use a chicken neck. Stick it in the oven to bake or roast with your other foods, then take it out and hold it in a pair of tongs over a burner for a few minutes to finish it off as broiled.
You don’t eat this either. It’s a symbol of the korban chagigah, the festival offering that used to be brought to the Temple. It, too, just sits on the seder plate as a reminder. Red alert: boil the egg first. Then hold it in tongs over a fire to broil or char it. If you try to broil a raw egg, it will explode. Trust me.
Speaking of eggs, there’s an Ashkenazic custom of eating boiled eggs in salt water at the start of the seder meal (the Shulchan Orech in the order of the seder). If that’s your custom, have one peeled boiled egg on hand for each participant. You can pour the salt water from the seder over the eggs before serving.
Salmon Cakes with Tropical Fruit Salsa
Croquettes are a cute and elegant starter course. They’re also wonderfully light and refreshing. The tropical salsa is a perfect complement to the richness of the salmon. The balance of sweet and savory instantly pleases the palate.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Servings: 10 cakes
Ingredients for cakes
1 2-pound side of salmon, skin on
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup red onion, diced
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
Ingedients for salsa
1 cup diced pineapple
1/2 cup diced mango
1/2 cup diced red onion
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Preheat oven to 350º and lightly grease a large baking sheet. Bake salmon skin side down for 25 to 30 minutes or until cooked all the way through. Let cool completely.
- Once the salmon is cooled, gently flake away from the skin and break into large chunks. Place in a large bowl and combine with eggs, red onion, matzah meal, salt and pepper. Stir to mix well. Scoop about 1/3 cup at a time into your hands and form into a round patty about 1/2-inch thick. Place on sheet pan and repeat with remaining mixture until you have formed 10 cakes. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- In a medium bowl combine pineapple, mango, red onion, cilantro, jalapeno, lime juice, and salt. Mix well and set aside.
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Fry 5 cakes at a time for about 5 to 8 minutes per side or until golden brown and crispy. Drain on a paper towellined plate.
- To serve, top each cake with a few tablespoons of salsa.
Leek & Mushroom Chicken with Herbed Spaghetti Squash
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
1 medium spaghetti squash
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced and cleaned
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup white wine
3 tablespoons margarine
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 375º. Pierce squash all over with a knife and place in a baking dish filled 1/4-inch deep with water. Bake for 1 hour or until tender.
- While squash is baking, place chicken on a greased baking sheet and bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until cooked through.
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and add leeks and garlic. Sauté for 5 minutes or until softened. Add mushrooms and cook 2 more minutes. Add broth and wine and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes or until slightly reduced. Stir in margarine and parsley and add chicken breasts to coat with sauce.
- Cut squash in half, remove seeds and use a fork to scrape the flesh into long spaghetti-like strands. Place in a large bowl and toss with remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Balsamic London Broil with Roasted Onions
Prep Time: 8 minutes
Marinate: 3-6 hours
Cook Time: 1 hour
1 2 1/2-pound London broil
5 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil plus 1 tablespoon
2 medium red onions, peeled and cut into wedges
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and cut into wedges
8 medium shallots, peeled and cut in half
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
- In a large resealable bag, combine meat with garlic, balsamic vinegar and 1/4 cup olive oil. Marinate in the refrigerator for 3 to 6 hours.
- Preheat oven to 400º. Combine onions, shallots and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil on a large sheet pan and roast 40 to 50 minutes or until tender.
- Remove meat from refrigerator for 30 minutes before cooking. Season with salt and pepper all over. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium high heat and sear London broil 5 minutes per side or until nicely browned. Transfer meat to oven and cook for about 12 to 18 minutes or until a thermometer reads 130º for medium rare. Let rest 5 minutes before slicing.
- To serve place sliced roast on a large platter and garnish with roasted onions.
Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Pecans
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Servings: 10 sides
4 pounds sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean and cut into 1/2-inch thick wedges
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons maple syrup
2 cups chopped pecans
- Preheat oven to 400º.
- Divide sweet potatoes evenly between two sheet pans in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil and salt and roast for 30 minutes. Remove and toss with maple syrup and pecans. Return to oven and roast 5 to 10 minutes more or until tender and slightly browned.